Apart from the higher yield, nutrient availability was also unaffected in Zero Budget Natural Farming
Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) in Andhra Pradesh has led to significantly higher crop yield compared to organic or conventional (synthetic fertilisers and pesticides) farming, a new study of the state’s natural farming programme has found.
The southern state has been pushing 100 per cent chemical-free agriculture under the Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farming (APCNF) programme it launched in 2016. In the last six years, it has worked with 0.63 million farmers out of a total estimated six million farmers in the state, on natural farming.
Researchers from the University of Reading, the United Kingdom and Rythu Sadikara Samstha, a non-profit set up by the government in 2014 observed that when compared to the conventional treatment, yields were maintained in the case of organic farming and increased in ZBNF.
Conventional treatment involves the use of synthetic pesticides / fertilisers. Organic treatment does not use any synthetic pesticides or fertilisers and mulch but uses purchased organic inputs, such as farmyard manure and vermicompost. ZBNF involves not using any synthetic pesticides or fertilisers and uses home-made inputs comprising desi cow dung and urine with mulch. It does not involve any purchase of inputs.
Apart from the higher yield, nutrient availability was also unaffected in ZBNF, noted the study published in Agronomy for Sustainable Development journal March 23, 2023. This is a significant finding as there have been arguments that conventional treatment, which uses synthetic fertilisers, increases extractable nutrient concentrations compared to organic and ZBNF treatments.
The researchers carried out controlled field experiments in 28 farms over three cropping seasons from June 2019-2020, comparing ZBNF to conventional and organic treatments.
Comparisons were made in terms of yield, soil pH, temperature, moisture content, nutrient content and earthworm abundance. The farms were spread across six districts in Andhra Pradesh (Anantapur, Kadapa, Krishna, Nellore, Prakasam and Visakhapatnam), spanning over 800 kilometres, representing different agro-climatic zones.
The results revealed that ZBNF yield was significantly higher than both conventional and organic treatments in Prakasam, Nellore and Kadapa. Whereas, in Krishna, ZBNF was significantly higher than the conventional treatment only, and in Anantapur, ZBNF was significantly higher than the organic treatment only.
It was observed that the yield for the conventional treatment reduced from the first to the third season (1>2>3), whereas the organic and ZBNF mean yield increased slightly through the three seasons. The researchers called it the most extensive on-ground assessment of ZBNF performance in the region to date.
The yield of groundnut kernels was around 30-40 per cent higher in the ZBNF treatment, an important finding with groundnut being a crucial oilseed crop in India and covering 537,000 hectares (ha) in Andhra Pradesh alone.
“However, the efficacy of the ZBNF treatment was context specific and varied according to district and the crop in question. The ZBNF yield benefit is likely attributed to mulching, generating a cooler soil, with a higher moisture content and a larger earthworm population,” the researchers noted.
It has been estimated earlier that if ZBNF covered 25 per cent of the total crop area in Andhra Pradesh, $70 million would be saved in fertiliser subsidies every year.
Intensive use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers comes with a number of associated risks to farmers’ finances, human health, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution. Reduced use of purchased inputs and less involvement of agri-business could also have financial benefits whilst yields are improved or maintained.
The yield benefit is of significance for Andhra Pradesh, a state with the highest percentage (42.3 per cent) of tenant holding, compared to the national average of 13.7 per cent.
A recent survey by Rythu Swarjya Vedika, a farmers’ organisation based in Hyderabad, estimated that 79 per cent of these tenant farmers in Andhra Pradesh are either landless or own less than one acre of land and are therefore almost entirely dependent on leased land for their income from agriculture.
“This immediate yield benefit observed after adopting ZBNF practices will be of particular interest to farmers on short-term land leases, as they may not be able to farm the same land every season,” the study said.
There are parallels between ZBNF and conservation agriculture in terms of the adoption of reduced tillage, application of crop residues and intercropping to minimise soil disturbance . What sets ZBNF apart is the combination of practices like reduced tillage and intercropping with unique home-made amendments like bijamrita and Jeevamrutha.
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